Legalisation of Drugs

BBC 1 and 2 are available via cable in the Netherlands, so I was able to watch the If… drugs were legalised program on BBC 2 last Wednesday. There seemed, to me at least, a strong bias towards legalising drugs and I generally got the feeling it came down on the pro-drugs side (documentaries rarely represent both sides equally). They had clips of experts and activists on both sides, along with a narrative set in 2015 where all drugs bar cocaine and heroin are completely legal and heroin is given out freely on the NHS.

There was a time, some years ago, when I wondered why drugs hadn’t been legalised. After all, when I reached 18 I became legally capable of making my own decisions, so why would the government choose to stop me using drugs, surely it’s my choice? I figured that once I got to adulthood I must, technically, be capable of deciding for myself whether I want to use these substances. Alcohol and tobacco are addictive and can be lethal, so why stop me consuming other substances? These are just some of the arguments that the pro-legalisation commentators where using. They also mentioned huge drops in crime, both organised and that done to fund drugs habits, better care for people on drugs, more research into the effects of these drugs and how to deal with them. They suggested getting class-A drugs dished out for free at hospitals or special clinics and consumed on the premises under supervision (as is done in Switzerland apparently). They argued that regulation would increase the safety and allow people to buy from reputable sources. Then there was mention of the tax to be made (£1-4 billion a year) and the size of the marketplace (apparently worth £6.6 billion in the UK and only behind arms and oil globally).

They made it sound as if legalisation was inevitable and that it was only a matter of time. Reading the arguments above, you might agree, look at all those positives, but there are negatives too. Many of these were mentioned in the program, but they seemed to be glossed over if you ask me, or were flattened by one of the arguments for legalisation. I had a few of my own to add, so bear with me.

Many of the arguments for legalisation were based around the premise that prohibition has never worked and is not working. They argued that making drugs legal would halve our prison population (which would save a lot of money in keeping and processing them), but you could argue that about almost any crime or illegal activity. Make stealing cars, or prostitution, or shoplifting, or car tax avoidance legal and bingo, you’ve just cut the crime rate, the prison population and the workload on the courts. Just because it does, doesn’t mean we should, it’s a stupid argument. There was talk that the big pharmaceutical companies would step in and everything from production to distribution could be regulated. Nobody mentioned that if these companies find there is more money to be found in the ‘leisure’ drugs industry, they may neglect, under fund or stop production of medical drugs and drug research. There was also a complete lack of understanding that most of the pharmaceutical companies are enormously wealthy and powerful, and this could make them more so, and then, just how do you stop them? When they’re rich enough to buy governments, make huge campaign donations and control politicians, do you honestly think they’ll let little things like legislation and regulatory bodies stand in their way?

The other big argument is that it will cut crime. Legalise drugs, it was argued, and you remove the illegal trade that is making criminals rich. No, you don’t. Tobacco is legal but there are still gangs smuggling cheap, tax-free or stolen cigarettes into the UK. Criminals don’t play by the rules and they’ll happily supply cheaper, knock-off copies from factories in the third world. Just look at the market for fake DVDs, CDs, clothes and even perfume. To some people, price will always be the deciding factor. Working in Holland, perhaps my brain is simply better atuned, or I look at it differently, but when they cited that the Dutch system was much better, I had to disagree. Amsterdam is the drugs capital of Europe, both legal and illegal. Most of the drug shipments that reach the UK come through Amsterdam, and not just drugs. These gangs have become big and powerful from selling drugs, so now they traffic everything from guns, to diamonds, to people. Added to this is the fact that people come to Amsterdam specifically for drug use, it's a magnet for recreational drug users who can fly in and spend the weekend getting high and causing trouble. That is what the UK could become.

Yet another argument was that it would reduce the burden on the hospitals having to help people who had drug-related illnesses. Well, making them legal will increase their use, safe or otherwise (how can it possibly be safe when one ecstasy tablet can kill?), and, as we know from alcohol binge drinking and weekend madness, people don't know when to say no. So people overdosing is going to be a common reality, a weekly trauma for doctors, nurses, friends and families. Fights, brawls and property damage will all increase and cause yet more burdens on our overstretched police force.

Recovering from a drug-induced state is also going to take a lot longer than curing a hangover after a heavy night too. Which will have massive implications for business as they already loose a lot of workdays due to people calling in sick from alcohol, let alone drugs. Now look at it longer term. Tobacco is accused of costing the NHS millions of pounds a year in cancer treatments, but imagine what long term drug abuse will lead to? Many drugs have been shown to have negative impacts on the body with prolonged exposure. LSD can have nasty mental effects decades after use. These will bleed whatever money is generated by the taxes raised on drugs, and more besides. The general argument is that tobacco kills people and we haven't banned that, people still use it to kill themselves and others. But we're trying to ban tobacco if you haven't noticed. We've woken up and smelt the foul stench of what we've been shovelled and decided we don't like it.

Going on with the health issue, do we know all the ways drugs can interact with other chemicals in the body to form deadly variants? What combination could turn a safe recreational drug into a killer? I don't know, and looking at the side effects on most medical drugs I'd have to say that the drugs companies don't know either. So I take a perfectly legal drug, head off into town and grab a curry and some chemical in the chilli sauce interacts with it and wham, I'm dead. There's too many unanswered questions here, too many factors, too much risk.

There was no mention that most drugs are extremely addictive, far more than alcohol or tobacco ever are. So more of the populace could easily be dragged into depending on them, wasting their money on that in favour of anything else. We know that a lot of people are susceptible to addiction, whether it be booze, gambling, fast food or sex, do they really need another option? With that comes a general decline of society's productiveness, especially with the NHS giving out free heroin. Who cares what's going on, what the world does, as long as I get my hit?

And what about kids? I take it there would be some sort of age limit on this, but how effective are they? Kids everywhere get their hands on drink and cigarettes well before they're legally old enough to have them, why would it be any different with drugs?

There are plenty more reasons too, reasons the pro-legalisation lobby seem to have ignored. A few years ago I might have been pro-legalisation, but, as you may have guessed, I’m now certainly against it, not so set that I would flee the country should the current status change, but I'd certainly lend support to a lobby against it. It strikes me that many of the pro-legalisation campaigners seem to be immune to the realities of the world and how it works, that legalised drugs don’t spell an end to crime, or death.

2 Comments

  1. Mattias Thorslund

    I share your concerns about drug legalization, to a pretty large extent. I've been to Amsterdam briefly, and what I didn't like was all the druggies. Sure, if it were legal in most places then people wouln't travel there to do drugs. Drug legalization is surely not the cure-all that many proponents want to make it.

    What bothers me about the current situation is that, especially here in the U.S., harsh drug laws put addicts in prison rather than treat them. They do their drugs while in prison, then are let out in the same addicted state, only to be picked up later for a new offense. This is very costly to the taxpayers, not to mention the drug addicts themselves, their children and families.

    A few years back, Californians passed a measure that gives non-violent drug offenders the choice to get treatment or prison. It's an excellent idea, getting people off their habits, reducing recidivism and saving lots of taxpayer money. I haven't heard much about it lately however, and I have my suspicions that it's being set up to fail. There's a lot of money in prison business, and one of the cancers that eat American society is the lobbying influence exercised by those who have the lucrative government contracts.

  2. Dave

    I don't think there's any perfect answer to the drug problem. In fact, the issue of legalizing drugs is oversimplified in itself. It assumes that all drugs are the same, which is certainly not true.

    To say that all drugs should be legal presents the question of how to deal with all the problems caused by people addicted to drugs like heroin. And how to regulate each individual drug.

    But to say that no drugs should be legalized logically means that alcohol shouldn't be legal either. Alcohol is certainly as addictive and harmful as some illegal drugs. But the US outlawed alcohol and that was a disaster. It created the same sorts of problems we see with illegal drugs today.

    So there's no single problem and no single solution.

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